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730: The Empty Chair

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Prologue: Prologue

Announcer

A quick warning, there are curse words that are unbeeped in today's episode of the show. If you prefer a beeped version, you can find that at our website, thisamericanlife.org.

Ira Glass

There was this article that a comedy website put out last year. Did you see this one? This was when cities first started going into lockdown. The headline said, "Nation's dogs effing loving whatever is going on right now." Apparently, that wasn't every dog. Lauren's dog, Raffi, 50-pound boxer mix, was a kind of vigilant, super protective dog even before the pandemic. And then, once lockdown started--

Lauren

The problem was everyone was ordering stuff online, and there were a million delivery people coming. There was FedEx, UPS, USPS, Amazon all day long. Or my neighbors would be coming and going. And the minute-- I couldn't even hear a delivery truck coming up the street, and already, the dog jumped on a chair that was near my window, was peering out, just fully at attention, ears pricked up. That's when I started to see his anxiety amped up, right? He couldn't get any rest. He couldn't calm down.

Ira Glass

In the house, he was always barking and growling and couldn't settle down. The fact that Lauren was now home all day with him-- which, for lots of dogs, would have been the greatest thing that ever happened to them-- for Raffi, just made things a lot worse.

Lauren

Dogs like him, they need a break, right? They need a break from the vigilance to say, I don't need to guard this person anymore. This person's out of the house. I'm chill. They need to not be on the job all the time. And I think that he was on the job all the time. And that was the problem.

Ira Glass

She took him to a behavioral veterinarian, who told her that lots of dogs were going through this since the pandemic. They put Raffi on meds-- meat-flavored Prozac. It didn't fix the problem. He got worse and worse. On walks, he was suspicious of people, which he had never been before. He ran across the room and burst through the door to chase and bite a FedEx delivery man. He lunged at someone on the stairs of the building. Lauren set up an appointment with a trainer who specialized in aggressive dogs.

And finally, Raffi attacked a little girl, maybe eight or nine years old. Just burst through a latched gate at a community garden where dogs run off leash. Lauren was guarding the door to make sure nobody entered while Raffi was in there, but he rushed past her to get to the girl, breaking through the gate.

Lauren

And the girl fell down, and the dog just got on top of her.

Ira Glass

Oh my God.

Lauren

So terrifying. I mean, the dog probably weighed almost as much as the girl did. And I mean, I was just devastated for the girl.

Ira Glass

The girl was upset and crying and walked away limping. Lauren's an experienced dog person. She worked with three different trainers when she first got Raffi to deal with his aggressiveness towards other dogs. But the fact that these attacks since the pandemic were completely unprovoked and on people, the fact that the meds weren't working, that Raffi seemed perpetually agitated and just changed, she thought about putting him down. She felt like she had no choice.

Lauren

And I wrestled with those things. I mean, it's an excruciating decision to make. I've had dogs before that I've had to euthanize because they are old or they're sick. And you're putting them out of their misery. And this was a totally different experience because you're taking a perfectly healthy being that loves you more than anything, that would do anything for you--

Ira Glass

Well, yeah. And, in fact, is trying to protect you.

Lauren

Right, right, and trusts you. But a completely unprovoked attack like that? There's nothing you can say about it. There's no way you can reason yourself out of what has to happen next. If you go after a kid, you're done, you know?

Ira Glass

She decided to put Raffi down.

Lauren

It's truly the most heartbreaking decision I've ever had to make in my life.

Ira Glass

It's the anniversary of the first COVID case in the United States. When you first heard of COVID, could you have imagined that it would have touched you in this particular way, that you'd end up not having your dog?

Lauren

There is no world in which I would think that this would be the logical outcome of COVID, that I would have to put my dog down, that COVID would ever have any impact on my dog. I mean, of all of the possible probable outcomes of a global pandemic, my dog dying is not one that I could have ever imagined.

Ira Glass

There are certain consequences of the pandemic that we all know-- over 400,000 Americans dead, millions of people out of work, kids everywhere having these terrible school years with distant learning. But there are all these other ways the virus has altered and shaped our lives. I was talking to this woman, Cindy, in Lincoln, Nebraska about this thing that happened a few days after her dad died of COVID. She was bringing her minivan into the garage and realized, oh, right. My dad isn't going to teach my son to drive.

Cindy

I think it was-- I was just parking. I think I was parking my own car and putting my hands on the keys and just thinking, oh, wait. That's another thing that we're going to miss now.

Ira Glass

Her son Harrison and her dad were really close. And she felt good knowing that her dad was going to teach him to drive. She says Harrison's really smart and funny, but not everybody gets him.

Cindy

And he and my dad really got each other. And they could just hang out, make funny jokes, ask questions, quiz each other. As a matter of fact, I was just looking. I have a-- there's a toy plastic soldier sitting on my desk.

Ira Glass

When her dad had open heart surgery, Harrison brought a few of these little plastic green soldiers to his hospital room.

Cindy

And said, these will protect you while you're in the hospital, Grandpa. And so, my dad started staging battle scenes from his hospital bed. And there was candy and Kleenex. And then he would text them-- photos-- to my son and say, hey, Harrison, look. Here's-- you know. Anyway, those were the kind of things that they would just do with each other.

Ira Glass

Anyway, driving-- not a huge thing, just a small, specific loss. Harrison's 16th birthday, the birthday that you can get a driver's license, was just a few weeks after her dad died.

Ira Glass

So who's going to teach him now?

Cindy

I don't know if we'll have to-- I suppose we'll take turns, my husband and I. Yeah, we haven't talked about it anymore, though. I think we all kind of know it's hanging there. And in some ways, not moving on with it maybe is a way of still kind of that magical thinking of, oh, maybe we don't have to think about it another way, even though we all know that's the reality.

Ira Glass

Cindy said this one thing to me that really caught me by surprise. We were talking about how, since her dad died, she's connected to this whole community of people online who've lost family members to COVID. And I asked her what people have said that's been helpful, expecting her to say, it's been comforting to talk to people who have been through what you've been through, that kind of thing. But the most important thing she's gotten from it?

Cindy

I think some validation in the anger when you're surrounded by still some denial.

Ira Glass

People who say that the disease isn't that serious.

Cindy

Yeah, or that masks don't really work.

Ira Glass

After her father got sick, Cindy says the car dealership where he worked told him that one of his co-workers had tested positive eight days before.

Ira Glass

So you're angry at his employers.

Cindy

Oh, absolutely.

Ira Glass

And then you're angry at the government in general, the way it was handled.

Cindy

The fact that we still have a functioning television in our house is probably a miracle, because the number of times that I was ready to throw something when the occupant of the White House would talk about how this is no big deal, it's going to go away. Because we clearly knew that that wasn't true. And after my dad got sick and then died, I was just so angry. It's like, we knew what we needed to do. We could have done something in this country.

Ira Glass

Have you heard Joe Biden talk about the empty chair?

Cindy

Yeah, it was actually the final debate. My dad's date of death is October 20th. And the last debate was October 22nd. And I had heard that line. I've heard him use it before. And I know that's a part of-- kind of like one of the things maybe from the stump speech, sort of thing.

Ira Glass

Right, it's one of those things he said a million times.

Cindy

Right, he said it a million times. And then, I'm sitting on the couch. And he looks at the camera, and he talks about it again after my dad died. And it truly felt like, oh, right, this is me now. This is my Thanksgiving. This is my Christmas. This is my son's 16th birthday. And somehow, even though I knew he had said that line hundreds of times before, I felt like he was looking through the television, straight at me. I felt like he was looking at our whole family. And I felt like he was looking at all of us, all of the other-- at the time, it was only, like, 200,000 families.

Ira Glass

Just three months later, of course, the numbers doubled. It's such a simple thing to acknowledge the loss that's all around us. Today, on our program, with the new president in office, one year after the first coronavirus case was found in the United States-- it was in Seattle, January 21st of last year-- here are stories about some of the things that have been lost this past year, things we do not usually think about as part of that empty chair. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: Cops and Mobbers

Ira Glass

Act One, Cops and Robbers. So what do you say exactly about what was lost two weeks ago on January 6th, when rioters stormed the Capitol building? When reporter Emmanuel Felton watched that day, out of all the footage he saw, one video stood out to him. You might have seen this one. It's of a single Black officer. We'd all later find his name, Eugene Goodman. And in the video, he's backing up a staircase, holding off a mob of rioters with a tiny telescoping baton.

[SHOUTING]

That gave Emmanuel the idea. He wanted to hear what the day was like for Black Capitol police officers, who faced off with this mostly white mob, a mob that showed up to the Capitol with Confederate flags and other symbols of white supremacy. What did they think about what happened? Eventually, he got a few of these officers on the phone, and they shared an insider account that is really unlike anything we've heard from the Capitol so far. Some of their experience, of course, was the same as white officers.

But as you'll hear, some of it was very different. Emmanuel put together this next story from an interview with one of those Black officers. The Capitol Police officers, their job is to protect the Capitol grounds and members of Congress. Because they're not allowed to talk to the press, we needed to disguise this officer's identity. And so, we had an actor copy his voice as closely as possible. A quick warning also-- this story contains a racial slur. Here's Emmanuel.

Emmanuel Felton

The officer, who I'm calling Officer Jones, was the person almost everyone told me I just had to talk to. Jones is warm and outgoing as hell. At one point, he told me his love language is words of affirmation. He has a lot of feelings about his job. I talked to him on Friday, just two days after the attack. He was a little stunned, still processing everything that had happened, and nursing some injuries.

Officer Jones

Just scrapes, cuts, bruises, bloody knuckles. I got me some work in, I tell you that.

[LAUGHTER]

But I did see two dead bodies. Three, if you include my co-worker. But he wasn't dead at the time. I've never been in a war. I'm not a veteran, but I can imagine that's what the fuck war looks like.

Emmanuel Felton

Yeah.

Officer Jones

I can imagine that, so.

Emmanuel Felton

The day hadn't started that way at all. That morning, he was posted on the east side of the Capitol building.

Officer Jones

A friend of mine screenshotted me an Instagram story saying, we're breaching the Capitol today, guys. I hope you're all ready.

Emmanuel Felton

Officer Jones thinks it was from the Proud Boys.

Officer Jones

And I'm like, wait, what? I laughed at it, and I was like, please. They ain't coming in here. Everybody say that. [LAUGHS]

Emmanuel Felton

Of course, we know by now that's exactly what happened. Not long after 1:00, he says people were coming from everywhere.

Officer Jones

And then, over the radio, they called out that they breached the first fence line or security. It was like, wait a minute. All right, guys. This is going to get real.

Emmanuel Felton

He raced over to the west side of the Capitol, the side that faces the mall where the stage was set up for inauguration, and joined the police line as they tried to beat back the crowd with their fists and batons, pepper spraying them and yelling, "Get back! Get back!"

Emmanuel Felton

Have you ever been in a fight like that?

Officer Jones

No, not like that. No way. These people were deranged, and they were determined. I've played video games before. Well, you know, zombie games-- Resident Evil, Call of Duty. And the zombies are just coming after you, and you're just out there. I guess that's what I could relate it to-- Call of Duty zombies. And the further you go, the more and more zombies just coming. You're just running, running, running. And they wouldn't stop. You're seeing they're getting their heads cracked with these batons, and we're spraying them, and they don't care! It was insane.

Emmanuel Felton

Once the rioters broke into the Capitol around 2:00, Officer Jones rushed inside to try and help out. He wasn't following any instructions because there weren't any. He realized that as he listened into his radio.

Officer Jones

The Department was attempting to come up with a plan-- attempting to come up with a plan because that was said on the radio, "We need to come up with a plan."

Emmanuel Felton

Whoa. [LAUGHS]

Officer Jones

I was thinking to myself, wait, why don't we have one already?

Emmanuel Felton

So the officers came up with their own strategy. They linked up in teams of two and ran around the building, responding to distress calls coming in over the radio. Priority calls, which meant everyone stopped and listened. They were pouring in.

Officer Jones

So when you're used to hearing priority maybe once every two or three days and you're hearing it once every 30 seconds-- priority, we have an officer down. Priority, we have an officer trapped, surrounded by protesters. Priority, we have a person having a medical emergency. We need DC Fire to this location. Priority, they just breached the windows. Priority, they're breaking the glass. Priority, they're headed up to the House chamber. Priority, shots fired. And you're thinking, what in the hell is happening?

Emmanuel Felton

While responding to these distress calls, Officer Jones got into some really surprising and intense conversations with the rioters, like when he and his partner were responding to a call for help from a fellow officer and ran into a crowd of 30 or 40 rioters headed straight for an area full of injured cops.

Officer Jones

I sent the guy I was with-- I told him to go ahead and respond to the other call, and I'll stand here and I'll hold this hallway. And I took them all by myself. I made an impassioned plea to them. I said, "Listen. You have the nerve to be holding a Blue Lives Matter flag, and you are out there fucking us up. Please go the fuck home. You don't care about us. How can you care about us, and you're doing this to us? We got dozens of cops incapacitated and hurt now."

And when I said that, a lot of them stopped and paused and was like, wait, y'all got cops down? How many cops are down? And they looked like they had a moment of like, holy fuck. And then, they snapped back out of it. And it was like, hey, guys. Man, we're doing this for you. And then, one of the guys, it was a group of, like, seven people walked by. And two of them in the back say, "Hey, listen, man. I know what you're going through," and he pulled out his badge.

Emmanuel Felton

A police badge.

Officer Jones

And the other guy had his badge. I was like, wait, you got to be kidding. And I wanted to go up and snatch it. I wanted to find out who the fuck they were. And me, I'm the only Black dude standing in front of them.

Emmanuel Felton

Yeah. So what did they do?

Officer Jones

They looked at me. They yelled at me. They were yelling at me. And I would not let them go past. They all want to go past me? I'm going to beat all your asses. One by one, I'm going to deck all of y'all. Come on. And that's when one of the guys that was a cop said, "Hey, man, we're going to stand here with you." I was like, "No, get the fuck out of my building." He was like, "This is our building." And I was like, "This is my goddamn building. I'm in charge here. Get the fuck out." And that's when I started losing my temper even more. I mean, I got tears streaming down my face.

Emmanuel Felton

Later that day, when he was even more drained, he had another confrontation, this one about politics. It happened near the rotunda when Officer Jones was trying to protect a critical hallway. There was something like 70 of them this time. The attackers he was facing off with started justifying what they were doing. "Listen," they told him. "We can't let them overtake our democracy. We're stopping this deal, man."

Officer Jones

Then I started-- actually, I got baited into a conversation. I didn't get baited because I wanted to fucking engage him. And the guy was telling me. I was like, "Yeah, I voted for Joe Biden. So the fuck what?" I was like, "What? Do I not matter? Am I a liar? I voted for Joe Biden. So the fuck what? So tell me I don't fucking matter." I was like, "What? Oh, I gotta agree with you? I gotta agree with you? If I don't, what? You're going to kill me?"

Emmanuel Felton

I think that so much of Trump and his supporters' anger and inability to accept their loss in the 2020 election boils down to the idea that Black votes just shouldn't count. The president has continuously attacked Black voters. He has claimed that there was widespread fraud in a number of cities with large Black populations, cities like Atlanta, Detroit, Philadelphia, and he has demanded that thousands of votes be thrown out because of it. But this crowd was a lot more, mm, direct.

Officer Jones

They were lighting into me. "Oh, this nigga voted for Joe Biden." And he yelled it to his crowd, the crowd, and they booed.

Emmanuel Felton

Eventually, reinforcements from other police departments arrived to help clear out the building. It was a little before 5:00 when things finally calmed down enough that officers were told to take a few seconds to send an "I'm OK" text to loved ones. When Jones looked down at his phone, he had something like 70 text messages and over 30 missed calls. Not long after that, he finally got a chance to sit down, catch his breath, and take it all in.

Officer Jones

I didn't even think about race until we got everybody out. And I sat down with one of my buddies, and tears just started streaming down my face. Now, obviously, all the commotion has ended, so it's just law enforcement in there and FBI suits and all these suits walking around. Everybody-- you know, the important people show up once all the fucking mess is done.

Emmanuel Felton

Right.

Officer Jones

And I'm just sitting there, covered in fucking tear gas and OC spray. And I'm looking at my buddy. He put his arm around me, another Black guy. And I was like-- I was like, you got-- look at him, look at him. They're just sitting there, smiling, sitting there, hand shaking each other.

Emmanuel Felton

He means the FBI guys and other law enforcement.

Officer Jones

What the fuck are you smiling about? What the fuck are you smiling about? And I'm furious. And that's when I said, "I'm so sick and tired of this shit. These were racist-ass terrorists!" And I'm screaming. I'm in the rotunda, and it echoes. So it was loud as shit. Everybody stopped, and they turned around and looked at me. And I was like, "What the fuck are y'all looking at? Nobody should be OK. We just fought for five fucking hours with some fucking racist terrorists." I said, "I got called a nigger 15 times, man."

Emmanuel Felton

Yeah. Fuck, yeah. I'm trying to imagine as a Black man what it was like, having the N-word hurled at you, seeing that kind of ugly racism.

Officer Jones

It broke my heart. Like I said, that's why I had my breakdown in the rotunda. And I just sat there and I cried. I cried. I cried for about 15 minutes, and I just let it out. I was done. I was mentally exhausted. I was physically exhausted. And I didn't have anything left to give. And it just hurts so much. And then I looked at my buddy. And I remember, I said, "Is this fucking America, yo? What are we doing?" I was like, what is happening?

Emmanuel Felton

I've been thinking a lot about what January 6th says about America. When I think about that day, I remember the photos I saw early that morning of Black poll workers in Georgia bravely counting the runoff ballots in the middle of a pandemic and under threat from Trump supporters; how, that afternoon, I saw video of a Black officer, Eugene Goodman, protecting Mike Pence and lawmakers from the insurrectionists; and later that night, watching a video of Black Capitol staff cleaning up the mess the rioters left. Through all the attacks, everywhere I looked, it was Black people doing the job of making our democracy work.

It was a job Officer Jones continued to do the day after the attack. He went straight back to work. With continuing threats, the Capitol Police have had to work around the clock. 16-hour days have become the norm. He's had just one day off in the two weeks between January 6th and Inauguration. I talked to him a few days before.

Emmanuel Felton

So you're back at work now. What does it feel like to be at the Capitol today?

Officer Jones

You look around and you see all these soldiers here. You look around and you see unscalable razor wire fences around here. And as an officer who got his ass whooped a couple of days ago, you feel good. Hell yeah. Come back, try it again. We got help now. Try it again. So as an officer, I'm like, yeah. But as just a person, American citizen, Black man, you feel like, what the hell? Is this normal now? Is this what we got to do to prevent this from happening? It's-- man. It's-- ugh.

Emmanuel Felton

There's a long list somewhere of things we thought could never happen. And so many of them have been lost, struck off the list, disappeared in the last year. This was just the latest one. In my conversations with the officers, it felt like we were saying, sure, there are a lot of racists in America. But this? That they could storm the Capitol, that they could shut down our government, that left us in awe. That was new.

Ira Glass

Emmanuel Felton-- he writes about race and inequality for BuzzFeed News. He checked in with Officer Jones on Inauguration Day this week. Officer Jones said he was glad they were going to inaugurate the president that the rioters did not want to see inaugurated in public, in their faces, he said.

But when the actual day came, he did not get to enjoy it himself. He didn't see any of the speeches or the performances. He was working on the east side of the building, far from the action. The actor whose voice you heard saying Officer Jones's words is Gbenga Akinagbe. You can see him in the upcoming FX Hulu series, The Old Man, with Jeff Bridges and John Lithgow.

Coming up, we share something with you that you need, that is missing from your life, that you may not even have noticed how much you need this. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two: 50 Shades of Shade

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, The Empty Chair. We have stories about things that have been lost this past year, things that seemed worth noting, as we head into whatever new chapter is going to unfold this year. We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, 50 Shades of Shade.

So here is something else that we have all lost since the pandemic. It almost feels too small to mention, but really, I think, is pretty significant. Rachel Connolly noticed this. She's a writer in London. Our producer Lilly Sullivan talked to her.

Lilly Sullivan

To understand why this thing Rachel's missing matters so much, let's start with a little story about two brothers.

Rachel Connolly

OK, fab. So we just call them Frank and Stephen. They're slightly different ages. Frank is the older brother, and he's kind of shorter, less handsome. Stephen's kind of the handsome brother. But Frank is kind of more gregarious and charming and this kind of really funny guy. So they both are kind of attractive in different ways.

Lilly Sullivan

This happened at the beginning of the pandemic. The brothers had moved back to their hometown for lockdown in a kind of surreal second adolescence, back with their parents, social distance hanging with people they'd kind of known in high school. Frank and Stephen-- not their real names-- are in their early 20s. They'd spent the day drinking outside with someone they'd grown up with.

Rachel Connolly

And she's called Beth. And Frank, the less handsome but funny one, he's always had a thing for Beth. And he's kind of like, you know what? I've been meaning to do this for years. This night is going to be our night. And he said this to Stephen. Like, I think this is going to be the night it finally happens. And so, they were drinking all day. And Frank just got drunker and drunker and drunker because people do, do that when they want to do something, but don't want to kind of be responsible for doing it. They were kind of--

Lilly Sullivan

Absolutely.

Rachel Connolly

Yep. So he got by the end of the day totally plastered, slurring his words, just telling the same story over and over again. And Stephen was like, I'm just going to do the nice thing here and just bring you back, Frank. You're too drunk, and it doesn't look good.

Lilly Sullivan

Stephen tells Beth, "I'm going to be a good brother here." He takes Frank home and puts him to bed.

Rachel Connolly

Which is all very charitable-seeming. But once he had done this, he then went back to Beth's house-- cycled back as well, not even walked. And guess what happens next?

Lilly Sullivan

Sex. Sex is what happened next between Beth and Stephen, the younger brother, the more handsome but less funny brother, who had not liked Beth since childhood. This is what we used to call gossip. It's the way conversation used to be before the pandemic took it away from us.

I found Rachel because she wrote an essay about how she suddenly noticed its absence. She put her finger on this thing that I've been feeling, too. She wrote, "This was the year when everything happened and nothing happened. And I quickly got bored of talking about the news-- almost always bad-- or asking people what they'd been up to-- almost always nothing."

Rachel Connolly

Just Zoom calls with the same people to have essentially the same conversation, which was like, what have you done today? How is lockdown? Everyone safe? And then it would be like, so what's going on? And everyone would be like, nothing, actually, really. Not really much on.

Lilly Sullivan

Oh, that's so true, though, that moment when people are like, "So what's new?" And you're like, "Nothing."

Rachel Connolly

Yeah.

Lilly Sullivan

The thing about this story, Rachel doesn't even know these people.

Rachel Connolly

Yep, no.

Lilly Sullivan

Not at all.

Rachel Connolly

No.

Lilly Sullivan

She thinks she maybe met one of the brothers at a party once. She just heard this story from a friend of hers. He's the one who knows Frank and Stephen. The best kind of gossip, of course, is about people you know. But she didn't have that. And she was so hungry for it. It turns out in a pinch-- or in a pandemic-- strangers will do.

Lilly Sullivan

You can't sleep with the person your brother likes. You just, like--

Rachel Connolly

Do you think it's so bad? I'm not sure. I kind of think it's one of those drunk things where it's like, if it's someone's liked them from a teenager, I'm like, do they even like them, or is it just like-- is this-- is it just someone who's here and has always been here?

Lilly Sullivan

Oh my god.

Rachel Connolly

Yeah.

Lilly Sullivan

Rachel and I are both living without kids or extended family. We haven't lost our jobs. Neither we nor our loved ones got very sick. I recognize how dumb our concerns are compared to what so many people's lives have been, but we both noticed a thing that, over the course of the pandemic, had kind of drifted away while we weren't paying attention-- the ability to socialize like a normal person. Talking, it turns out, is like a muscle. And when you don't use it much for months on end, it can atrophy. Rachel remembers the first time she went out to meet up with more than one person.

Rachel Connolly

I was literally like-- the next day, I felt like I had run a marathon or had done this extraordinary feat of endurance when it was just having a conversation with more than one person for a couple of hours. It was like a job. You have to really focus on what you're saying. You have to focus on your body language.

Lilly Sullivan

I felt this also. Friends would get in touch and want to go for a walk. I'm like, mm, it sounds awkward. I'll see you after the pandemic. It's not that I don't want to see people. There's just no fuel for conversation. Stuff from before the pandemic is too old to talk about now. So what are you supposed to talk about when there are no situations?

So Rachel started doing this thing that I thought was pretty brilliant. She started asking people, got any gossip about anyone? And it kind of worked. Conversation was easier when you were talking about the tailor who lied about her husband's death to avoid an uncomfortable conversation about a missing shirt, or the guy who'd hooked up with his roommate and it didn't work out, and should he move now?

I could talk your ear off about a friend of mine whose fiancé broke up with her during couple's therapy-- remote couple's therapy over Zoom. How my friend watched her fiancé dump her from their laptop screen, even though they were sitting side by side on their bed. This kind of talk, it wasn't exactly normal like before, but it was good enough, like pretty decent fake meat.

It's like that story about the two brothers. It delivers the thrill of being scandalized and that demented, little bond you feel when you huddle up with someone and judge people together. Clearly, the younger brother, Stephen, was wrong, the handsome snake. But also, Beth, they're brothers. Did you really have to do that? But actually, hold that thought.

Rachel Connolly

There is more.

Lilly Sullivan

Here's the rest of the story. Frank, the funny one, he didn't know his brother had slept with Beth. And about a week later, he also sleeps with Beth, the crush he'd put dibs on back in, like, eighth grade. He was really excited about it.

Rachel Connolly

And he was sitting with a group of friends a few days after, kind of boasting they were going to have a lockdown thing and that this has finally happened. And then, one of these friends was like, oh, wait, but do you know about Stephen? I'm presuming you do. And Frank was like, what?

And then, yeah, it was broken to him by this, and also broken in front of a kind of group of people. And then, he kind of had to row back and be like, I wasn't serious about this. I didn't mean we were going to have a lockdown thing, which is obviously always-- it's always mortifying when you have been talking earnestly about something, and then it's revealed that you didn't have a piece of information that other people has.

Lilly Sullivan

Completely, yeah.

Frank called Beth and told her the whole lockdown thing was off. He and his brother had a big falling out. And Beth was really sad because it turns out she actually liked Frank back the same way he liked her. The thing with Stephen was just a drunk hookup. Frank was the real thing.

Lilly Sullivan

Oh, really? She was like, we could have had a lockdown thing.

Rachel Connolly

Yeah, she was like, the lockdown thing is off the cards, but it shouldn't have been. That shouldn't have been the way it went, and I should have told him.

Lilly Sullivan

She was confiding all this in a friend, who we'll call Sarah, who then goes off and sleeps with Frank, even though Beth had just told Sarah how much she liked him.

Rachel Connolly

I like that everyone behaved as a human does, which is, like, everyone is self-interested. People do do things out of a vengeance and spite. But that is just normal behavior. It's part of life. And I think when we were discussing different chapters of the story, one person would be totally appalled by the fact that someone would do something. And another person would be like, yeah, no, I would do that.

Lilly Sullivan

I'd kind of been dreading this interview, just like I dread talking to anyone these days. My social skills are rusty. I worried that we'd run out of things to talk about. I had actually postponed our call for a week because of that.

Lilly Sullivan

But it's really fun to talk with you about this, and I'm like, oh my God, I'm totally paying attention. I'm following everything she's saying. I'm relating.

Rachel Connolly

I'm operating successfully as a human.

Lilly Sullivan

As a human, yeah. That was a joke. I understood that it's a joke. A lot of the times, I don't.

Rachel Connolly

My joke receptor was--

Lilly Sullivan

It was very funny, and I enjoyed it.

I did enjoy it. I realized it's one of the most fun conversations I've had in months. It's not about shit talking people. It's about the shit talking itself and the fact that we're doing it together.

I haven't even told you the last part of the story. Beth's mad at her friend Sarah for sleeping with the guy she liked. So she tells this other friend, Sarah's a slut. And then, that other friend turns around and tells Sarah, Beth called you a slut.

Rachel Connolly

This peripheral friend is like, well, I've now become part of this.

Lilly Sullivan

She completely inserted herself into the thing.

Rachel Connolly

Actually, to me, this is the worst, is like inserting yourself in, just with no other--

Lilly Sullivan

Yeah, she didn't even sleep with anyone.

Rachel Connolly

Yeah, she just was like, I had to tell her. But and also she didn't know when people snitch, they always do that thing of like-- everyone does this. They're always like, I simply felt she had to know. People are like--

Lilly Sullivan

That's so true. My principles compelled me to deliver the information. Duty bound.

Rachel Connolly

I wouldn't have said anything, but I felt I had to.

Lilly Sullivan

It's so true. I could actually see myself being the snitch in that situation. She had the right to know. It was her right. I could see myself doing that. Just inserting myself, like the worst character in it, too, when I have no stakes in it. Just needing to be--

Rachel Connolly

I think the snitch is quite a controversial thing because the minute I heard about the snitch, I was like, how could she just doing that, like being that person? And then a couple other people were like, is it so bad? So you're the snitch.

Lilly Sullivan

OK, so that's the end. So who's right? Who's wrong? Do we care? We do.

Ira Glass

Lilly Sullivan is a producer on our show. For more gossip and thoughts about gossip, you can find Rachel Connolly's essay that inspired this story in Hazlitt. That's where it first came out. It is pretty delightful. It is called "The Year in Gossip."

Act Three: There’s a German Word for That

Ira Glass

Act Three, There's a German Word for That. So one thing that we've lost this past year is something big, something we all took for granted, I think-- something kind of frightening in its implications. And that's the idea that we could come out of a national election and agree that it was legit and agree on who won. You're either on one side of this or the other. Either you think the man in the White House today won the election fair and square, or you don't.

To state it clearly and unambiguously, I and the producers of this radio program side with all the people out there who do not think the election was stolen-- including, apparently, now former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said that people who believe otherwise were fed lies.

But right now, millions of people believe that the wrong guy is in the White House. A third of all voters believe there was widespread fraud, which is remarkable, right? Back in November, a journalist in Germany, Jochen Bittner, was watching this unfold, seeing the fake evidence that was showing up under the hashtag, #stopthesteal, reading the president's tweets about supposed election fraud.

Jochen Bittner

And for some reason, what sprang to my mind was, then, the memory of the dolchstosslegende, or the stab in the back myth--

Ira Glass

The stab in the back myth.

Jochen Bittner

--that I learned about in school. I mean, more or less, every German would know the stab in the back myth because it was such a potent lie in German history.

Ira Glass

Stop the steal is about losing an election. The stab in the back myth is about losing an entire war, namely World War I. But there are parallels between the two lies and the way they took hold that are unsettling. The history goes like this. Basically, there came a point in 1918. The United States had entered the war. Germans suffered defeats. It was clear to everybody that Germany was going to lose.

In fact, Navy sailors refused to head out to be killed in what they saw as suicide missions in a war that was doomed. Within Germany, lots of the population was against it. And so, in 1918, the Germans surrendered. The German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, abdicated the throne, fled the country. Germany became a democracy for the first time.

But right away, starting in 1918-- coincidentally, also a global pandemic going on right then, the 1918 flu. 50 million died. Right then, starting in 1918, right-wing politicians and newspapers started pushing this lie, a kind of steady, angry drumbeat of coverage, saying that, in fact, they could have won the war if Jews and Social Democrats and leftists hadn't stabbed the country in the back by forcing Germany to surrender.

Jochen Bittner

Even the creators of the stab in the back myth knew that they were lying-- the likes of Luddendorff, who later supported the Nazis. They knew well that the war was lost, was a lost cause.

Ira Glass

So after this myth begins, one of the things that you write is that there was no national consensus on the reality on what had happened to them. And it became impossible for a democracy to continue.

Jochen Bittner

Yes. That was quite true. And the disturbing effect of the stab in the back myth was that it did not grow weaker, but stronger over the years. You might have expected that eventually, people will see the truth. They will acknowledge the facts. They will believe what journalists and observers and historians tell them. But the contrary is true.

Ira Glass

That's actually one of the big things that I took from an op-ed that Jochen wrote about all this back in November, in The New York Times, that a lie like this might not die off on its own. It very well might stick around and grow in power.

Jochen Bittner

Throughout the 1920s, the idea that certain Germans were to blame for this defeat, for this big loss, was very seductive and very attractive. And I would go so far to say that if it hadn't been for the stab in the back myth, the Nazis could have never been as successful as they were.

Ira Glass

It was a central premise in Hitler's speeches and ideology. Now, to be clear, Jochen Bittner is deeply aware of the differences between America today and Germany in the 1920s. He is not saying that we should expect the rise of a new Adolf Hitler or something like that. But he is saying that what 1920s Germany shows us is how effective and popular an alternate reality can be in a country that's deeply polarized.

The other point along these lines that really has stayed with me and feels relevant to today in America is that back in the '20s, people who believed this myth saw their opponents as traitors, as people who had betrayed Germany in this basic fundamental way, which then justified anything that was done against them.

Jochen Bittner

So the actual accusation was that all the people responsible for the so-called stab in the back were criminals, Novemberfabrican-- November criminals, who signed the armistice in November 1918. So the idea was that they were the ones who obstructed the legitimate course of history.

Ira Glass

Well, when you say that, it makes me think about the protesters at the Capitol who feel like the election's been stolen. Like, of course, extreme measures are called for. An election has been stolen from them.

Jochen Bittner

But this is an interesting mindset, isn't it? I mean, we know it from people who are so convinced of the righteousness of their cause that they believe that even violence is legitimate to achieve their games. It's more or less a terrorist mindset or an extremist mindset, of course. They feel that they are the actual defenders of the true America. I mean, I read that Republicans who actually spoke out against Trump and against the stop the steal campaign, they now have to fear for their lives.

Ira Glass

I saw that too, the death threats against Republicans who voted to accept the election results. And back in the '20s in Germany, there was violence, starting with the German politician who negotiated their terms of surrender in World War I. He was murdered, a man named Mattias Erzberger. One of his assassins from a first failed assassination attempt went on trial and told the judge they did it because Erzberger stabbed the country in the back. When the judge asked him where he got this idea, he said, the newspapers.

So yeah, President Biden's in office, signing executive orders and talking about unity and trying to turn the page. But a lie this big? You didn't lose a war. You didn't lose an election. It can stick around and fester and grow. It can lead to people losing faith in the entire system of government. In fact, Germany stopped being a democracy by the '30s. And it can lead to violence.

Act Four: Quarantweening

Ira Glass

Act Four, Quarantweening. So today's program is about losses that are unaccounted for. And one of our producers, Chana Joffe-Walt, has been thinking about the lives of kids during this pandemic here, how to account for what they've lost. One kid in particular.

Chana Joffe-Walt

I saw him on Zoom last May. I'd gotten an email asking me to show up for some online rallies, and he was at one of them. The rallies were for youth programs in New York City, programs that were being considered for budget cuts. My kid's after school program was one of them.

Man 1

Hey, everybody. Welcome to the Fund Youth NYC Virtual Rally, man. How's everybody doing over here?

Man 2

What's going on, y'all?

Man 1

Hey, throw the X up.

Man 3

Doing well, doing well.

Chana Joffe-Walt

It's so strange going back to this video now and seeing how psyched everyone is to be on Zoom together. There's families and staff from programs across the city. And people are practically giddy to see the people we used to see in the world in here.

Woman

Let's do a selfie really quickly! If folks can just look at me, I'm going to take a picture. And then, we're going to post it on our social media. So are you ready?

Chana Joffe-Walt

I'd forgotten this time. Back then, last May, we still believed we could get our lives back. People in this rally say, well, obviously, we're going to need somewhere to send our kids. We can't just close all the places children go every day. A single dad says, innocently, parents need to keep their jobs. There's a program director. His budget is about to be cut. And he's saying, but I mean, we can't lay off hundreds of people in the middle of a pandemic. Come on.

This is a lot of what the meeting was-- people talking about why their programs shouldn't be cut, especially parents and kids. The kid who has stuck with me many months later is a little boy who spoke. He's sitting up straight and stiff in a blue-collared shirt, clearly nervous.

Joel Santana

All right. Hi, everyone. My name is Joel Santana. And I just want to say that--

Chana Joffe-Walt

At first, he caught my eye because he seemed so little. Most kids speaking were teenagers. He looked like he could be nine or 10. But when he spoke, it was clear he's older, in middle school. He talks like a kid who wants to sound like an adult and is eager for his vocabulary to catch up.

Joel Santana

Throughout my time there, I got to know people and do engaging activities with them. And now, I can call them my friends.

Chana Joffe-Walt

He's looking increasingly nervous-- maybe trying not to cry? I can't tell.

Joel Santana

Beacon Program really helps people in a community that don't really have anywhere to go after school. It really helps with the community. And sorry, one second.

Chana Joffe-Walt

He turns off his camera. And we all just wait, looking at his black square. Is he coming back? 20 seconds pass.

Woman

We love you, Joel.

Ozzy

Joel, it's Ozzy here. You got this, Joel.

Woman

We love you.

Ozzy

You got this.

Chana Joffe-Walt

He turns his camera back on and finishes.

Joel Santana

I just wanted to say that-- I just want to emphasize that it would be such a loss to have some sort of cut that would sort of prohibit our-- like, our growth in the community. And it's so detrimental that youth like me have growth. Again, it would be such a loss to many kids.

Ozzy

Thank you.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Thinking about what's been lost in this past year, I've wondered about Joel. How scared he seemed of losing his after school program. How scared he seemed in that moment. I wondered what was going on with him and if his program got cut and what that 20-second silence was about. Last week, I called him up, introduced myself, and asked him.

Chana Joffe-Walt

So what was happening when you turned your camera off?

Joel Santana

I probably just, like, breathing in and out. Yeah, deep breath out. Because it's definitely a hard topic to talk about, and this was something that was definitely a big chunk of my life. And then, it was just taken away.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Joel told me he wrote out what he planned to say at the rally in advance. He practiced his comments, practiced them in different rooms in his apartment, considered if he should print them. No, he should hold them in his hand. No, he should put them to the side. Joel thought, somehow, if he said the right words in the exact right way, the program would come back.

Joel Santana

It just felt so important that I made my point clear. I just think that doing this would basically ensure that I still have that part of my life.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Joel wanted that-- was so committed to saving his after school program because there was a big thing that happened to him there, something that was really big to him and is also really small. His mom, Saritza Lopez-Rodriguez, says you have to understand who Joel was before middle school.

There's a reason Joel speaks like an adult. He grew up around adults. It was always him and his mom. When he was little, Saritza used to take him to night school if she couldn't find childcare. When she went to law school, they lived in the dorms together. So Joel spent a lot of time around adults.

But with kids, he just could not connect. His mom tried sports programs. Joel was not a sports guy. She got him together with her friends' kids. He'd hang on her leg. She thought, maybe we need to move. They're Latino. Saritza thought maybe somewhere more diverse. Maybe he just needs to feel more included. So right before middle school, they moved to Queens.

Saritza Lopez-rodriguez

I tried to find a park with the most kids, right? And I was like, he's going to have to play with somebody here and socialize here. Because there were kids playing tag, and I kept on telling him. I was like, "Joel, just start running, right? Run, and they'll include you. They'll ask you if you want to play, right?" And he's like, "No." And you have a bunch of kids just playing tag, you know? We would stay out-- be there, like, two hours and nothing. He made this statement, and I was just like, OK. He goes, "Mom, you don't understand the social aspect of being a kid." And I was like, "OK?"

Chana Joffe-Walt

He said those words?

Saritza Lopez-rodriguez

Yes, he literally said those words. And I was just looking at him. I'm like, ahh.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Then, Joel started middle school. Saritza signed him up for the after school program, and that's when something big happened for Joel. He made a friend-- two, actually, in after school-- James and Richard. And then, walking home from after school one day, Joel met a kid named Daniel, who has become his best friend. Joel told me that could easily have never happened, the two of them crossing paths at the exact same time.

Joel Santana

And if he would have went into his apartment in a millisecond, they probably would have not had a chance to actually meet and have a friendship.

Chana Joffe-Walt

He says if Daniel went in just a millisecond sooner, they wouldn't have had a chance to meet and have a friendship.

Chana Joffe-Walt

And what would that have meant for you?

Joel Santana

Honestly, I don't know. Daniel really-- he definitely gave me a sense of having a best friend. And I just think that I haven't had that before, where a friend would come over to my house and just play video games and hang out.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Joel said, I'm an only child. This was huge for him. And after that, he threw himself into the world in a way he had never done before. At lunchtime, he had a table of friends to sit with. He signed up for photography in after school. He ran for president of the after school student council, and he won.

He saw a counselor one day, playing with devil sticks, sort of like juggling. And Joel begged his mom to get him some. Saritza told me he was obsessive about mastering it. It was the first time she'd seen him have a hobby. Joel was suddenly enthusiastically responding to the people and opportunities and chance encounters around him. He was mastering the social aspect of being a kid.

And then, in the middle of seventh grade, with the pandemic, after school shut down. It went before regular school closed. And those first few weeks were jarring, getting home early, letting himself into the house.

Joel Santana

And it didn't feel right. It didn't feel normal.

Chana Joffe-Walt

What did you do with your time?

Joel Santana

I don't know. I ate a snack. It just felt blank. I just found myself either just lying down on my bed and just bored. It's just been an overwhelming sense of just boredom all the time.

Chana Joffe-Walt

That has not gone away. Joel's mom told me sometimes she still finds him lying on the bed. No phone or book, just staring at the ceiling. Right when his world should have been getting bigger, it's gotten so much smaller. He goes from his bedroom to the living room to the kitchen. He talks to his mom. I asked if he sees friends in online school. Joel said, yeah, but it's not the same. I asked if he calls his best friend, Daniel. He says, yeah.

Joel Santana

Again, it's not the same.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Yeah. I was just thinking, listening to you, I know there's a lot of concern about learning loss, like kids missing out on the things that you would normally learn in middle school, like developing your writing skills and learning algebra and geometry. Do you think there are things that are not accounted for on that list?

Joel Santana

Some of my friends-- honestly, I have lost connection with a lot of my friends because of this. And I really wish it would be different. But I think the most that's not accounted for is the social aspect that you're supposed to have. That is one of the biggest losses.

Chana Joffe-Walt

The social aspect.

Joel Santana

Yeah.

Chana Joffe-Walt

And you had just gotten that.

Joel Santana

Yeah.

Chana Joffe-Walt

There are the losses we know have been suffered by children this past year. Kids have lost family members. They've lost learning, stability, sometimes access to food. There are the losses we know, but what does it mean to lose your 13th year in the world? What would have happened for Joel?

In just one year, he made a friend. He learned how to make his way through a middle school cafeteria, how to look around and say, no, not that table. Not there. Yes, here. This is the place for me. He found his first hobby. He learned he could ask his peers to vote for him and his ideas, and they would. What else might have happened? No one ever says you're only 39 once. But you really are only 13 once.

Joel finished seventh grade at home. He'll probably finish eighth grade at home, too. And the next time he steps foot in a school building, it'll be to start high school. He's never going back to middle school. That's gone. Whoever he might have become, that's gone, too.

Ira Glass

Chana Joffe-Walt is one of the producers of our show. If you have not heard her podcast, Nice White Parents, that she made with the Serial team, it's available wherever you get your podcasts.

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Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Nadia Reiman. The people who put our show together today include Bim Adewunmi, Elna Baker, Susan Burton, Ben Calhoun, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Aviva DeKornfeld, Damien Grave, Chana Joffe-Walt, Seth Lind, Miki Meek, Lina Misitizis, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Ari Saperstein, Robyn Semien, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Julie Whitaker, and Diane Wu. Our managing editor is Sara Abdurrahman. Our senior editor is David Kestenbaum. Our executive editor is Emanuele Berry.

Special thanks today to Paul Hamilos, Rachel Lissy, Luis Fuentes, Lauren Yee, Harrison Nesbit, Felix, and Igor Bobic. Our website, thisamericanlife.org. You can stream our archive of over 700 episodes for absolutely free. Also, there's lists of favorite shows, videos we've made over the years, links to our television program, and tons of other stuff there. Again, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Thanks, as always, to our program's confounder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, he's redoing the drywall in his house. He's got all the supplies-- trowel, sandpaper, ladder. It took him a long time. He was covered in white dust, or as he puts it--

Rachel Connolly

By the end of the day, like, totally plastered.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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